Monthly Archives: March 2011

Knight, I know you can do it right

Stop giving money to old media, even individuals that are still in that mindset.

Hand the keys over to tech people. No need to be jealous of Silicon Valley innovation, just fund it. Seek out proposals from non-journalists and fund them.

The joint venture between Knight and Mozilla is a start, but it is also a start in the wrong direction. Why not just give Mozilla money to start a publication? Why not add a component to an established event such as a TechCrunch conference? There could be a pitch contest from entrepreneurs looking to fund really outside the box ideas.

I feel like only a small percentage of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge money goes to breakthrough innovations, most of it goes to other large organizations to fund specific stories. Sometimes you get the feeling Knight is like the Federal Reserve lending to large banks.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) this is a very short contribution to this month’s Carnival, so I will leave you with the most distilled down version of this post’s ideas

Continue the challenge but take more risk. Give out more grants, smaller grants and ask different people to take that risk, people outside your comfort zone.

 

[NOTE: This is a response to March 2011’s Carnival of Journalism prompt. ]

Carnival of Journalism: Increasing the Number of News Sources

I lead product development for Macer Media LLC, whose primary property is the news site,The Sacramento Press. It is in this capacity that I will address the February Carnival of Journalism topic:

Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?

I design new tools and features for the custom Content Management System (CMS) that runs sacramentopress.com.

We operate in large part by getting the community to contribute news, information, comments, photographs, tags, ratings and moderation to our site. We have gained a lot of qualitative insight as to why they do it. Now I want to develop more quantitative and analytical methods to expand our knowledge about why people contribute. In furthering our knowledge of this crucial question I believe we will be able to develop new tools and features to get a vastly more and varied contribution.

We have done many things to attract more contribution, from the digital to the tangible. We host free workshops open to the community to teach them more about our site, journalism and many related topics. We started a badge system to recognize individuals in our community for their hard work. And most importantly we hired a community manager to continue to build and grow relationships with the community, and to add new voices into the mix.

Despite the aim of these actions being in whole or in part to increase the level of community contribution on our site, we have taken few steps to measure the results of our actions in depth.

On top of all that, we are in a unique position to really advance the whole industry’s knowledge in this space, because we are a relatively large, funded, for profit news site that has the tech resources to research and develop new tools. My background in particular (web developer/programmer) puts me in a position to dramatically experiment with how we modify our website to achieve the goal of getting more community voices on our site.

This next cycle of development will be spent adding tools to our CMS that give each department insight into what drives site contribution. Beyond that information I have also spent the last week examining the contribution habits of our users when it comes to writing articles.

In many circles the concept of the 1-9-90 rule for user contributed content is accepted as near gospel. The basic principle is that 1% of your overall site viewers heavily contribute content to the site, 9% are light contributors and remaining 90% are what are known as “lurkers” or those that simply consume the content without interacting with it.

In our case we don’t even have the tools to measure this rule in an easy fashion, nor have we even defined what constitutes contribution. By merely flagging something, have I as a reader contributed to the site? Is tagging a contribution?

If we simply look at the number of people who write articles on our site (excluding staff and interns) we see that those unique people make up a tiny fraction of the unique people that view our website. In January of this year 0.14% of visitors to the site wrote an article, significantly less than 1%. Since January of 2010 we have seen that number head in a downward trend as you can see on the graph below.

Percentage_writers

 

However during that time we have also seen site traffic increase substantially (see below graph), more than doubling during that period, yet the unique contribution rate did not halve.

Unique_visitors

Looking at these numbers is inspiring, but making something of them will require a lot more work. I aim to do that work and use what I have learned to build a system that attracts more new and unique users to our site. The more perspectives we have the better informed the community will be.

Blogbate round 3 OR Showdown at the MoJo Dojo

This is round 3 of a continuing back and forth between Phillip Smith and myself.

Legacy media organizations are where brilliant news innovations go to die.

So I fear a fundamental flaw in the design of the Knight-Mozilla partnership. However, the media partners you have are rather progressive media organizations. If this idea works with anyone (and it may), these are the most likely people with whom it would work.

And though I originally wrote my blog post because I was interested in advising the Knight Foundation on how to advance journalism and reporting, I am happy to re-frame the debate around Mozilla’s mission of continuing to proliferate the open web. Personally I find Mozilla’s mission admirable, but I still don’t think that it is best served by your current plan, summarized in the following video.

Knight Mozilla Journalism Partnership from Graham Wheeler on Vimeo.

Large media conglomerates have a terrible track record of openness. While tech companies like Facebook and Apple have come under scrutiny for having closed systems, or systems that don’t respect individual privacy, there are also many tech organizations who are very open, such as Google, who is Mozilla’s primary source of funding. And to answer your question about innovative tech organizations promoting openness with wide adoption by media, how about Twitter, Scribd and Instapaper?

What I really want to know, is how putting the very best and brightest news hackers in large media companies will proliferate the concept of the open web.

True many millions of dollars are about to be spent by media organizations on new initiatives, but individual projects rarely effect those decisions. Beyond that, a million dollar decision today, might be a million dollar loss and scrapped plan at the end of the financial year.

For example, look at TBD.com. It was a brilliant multi-million dollar idea that opened up the site to contribution from the community. Its spirit was in sharing news, sharing profits and by doing so making the community a better place. Allegedly something like $5 million was spent on it. It was gutted after just 3 months.

Unfortunately this is not an exception, it is the status quo with large media companies. So I fear that without executive support, shareholder confidence and financial feasibility studies presented about the value of the open web, brilliant ideas may be considered brilliant, but never implemented at scale.

Bottom-line is that I love what MoJo is trying to do, I even love the competition part of it, but I fear it will not work. I am only critical because I am passionate about both news innovation and the proliferation of openness and I want to see both concepts make significant progress.

Let me end with a quick anecdote.

It was Spring of 2010, a bright and warm day in Sacramento. After proposing a joint workshop we, tiny little news start-up The Sacramento Press, were invited to meet with the editor of 150 year old Sacramento Bee, in her office, in the heart of the newsroom.

We got through security and were escorted upstairs by the jovial, sarcastic and generally very affable online managing editor. But by the time we got to the newsroom, we realized what it felt like to be in the heart of a struggling organization. As we entered, the air was sucked from the room. Reporters, AMEs, and more less all editorial staffers present looked at us as if we were alien life forms.

While the meeting was tense we managed to arrange the workshop, but the feeling inside that newsroom was quite palpable.

I fear that feeling might be the everyday reality of the fellows you eventually select from your partnership. The concern being that your MoJo fellows might flourish as well as a Saber-toothed tiger stuck in the LaBrae Tar Pits.